Net neutrality: TRAI says no to differential pricing

New Delhi: Backing Net neutrality, telecom watchdog Trai on Monday barred operators from charging different rates for Internet access based on content, dealing a blow to Facebook's controversial Free Basics and other such plans.

Ruling against discriminatory pricing for different data platforms or content, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) said operators cannot enter into pacts with Internet companies to subsidise access to some websites.

Companies violating the rules will be fined Rs 50,000 per day for the duration of contravention, subject to a maximum of Rs 50 lakh.

"No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content," Trai said
in its regulations for 'Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services'.

It gave six months to operators to wind down existing differential pricing services.

"Anything on Internet cannot be differently priced. This is the broad point that we have highlighted in regulation," Trai Chairman R S Sharma told reporters issuing the regulations.

However, services providers have been allowed to reduce tariff for access of providing emergency services. "We have not defined emergency services. But in the case of such services, operators have to inform Trai within 7 working days," he said.

The move dealt a blow to Facebook's plans to offer Free Basics service that allows free access to certain websites in partnership with a telecom operator. Zero tariff plans of other operators like Airtel would also be impacted. 

The plans were seen as violation of the principle of Net neutrality that calls for all websites being equally accessible. 

Facebook expressed disappointment at the Trai move, saying its "goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform".

"While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings," Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who had championed the cause of Net neutrality, hailed the move. "Welcome Trai's ruling in support of #NetNeutrality. Big win for Internet users in India. Congratulations to all those who campaigned tirelessly and fought hard to ensure that our Internet remains free and equal for all," his office tweeted.

Telecom operators see Trai's regulations as "an attack on their freedom" to approach the market and expect adverse impact on expanding connectivity in the country. 

"In our judgement, we would have been able to approach market in a better way. The flexibility... for marketing will not be there. We need to discuss whether it's serious enough to contest," Association of Unified Service Providers in India (AUSPI) Secretary General Ashok Sud said.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents leading telecom players such as Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular, said it has been unable to understand the harm of differential pricing of data on consumers as "alleged" by Trai.

"With blanket ban, you (Trai) have really indicated that there is definitive harm of differential pricing on consumers. Without defining Net neutrality, you (Trai) have jumped on tariff plans... Even in countries like the US, Net neutrality was defined followed by a zero rating definition," COAI Director General Rajan S Mathews said.

He took the line that litigation is the last resort and the industry will seek government intervention.

"We will have a clear picture next week... We are going through the regulations," Mathews said. 

Facebook has launched an aggressive campaign to defend its Free Basics platform and argued that zero-rating plans can lead to increase in Internet adoption at no cost to the government, the content provider or consumers.

It was available in India only on Reliance Communications network, but the same was put on hold after Trai's order. 

The debate on Net neutrality started after Airtel decided to charge separately for Internet-based calls in December 2014, but withdrew it later after protests. The debate heated up after Airtel launched free Internet platform Airtel Zero and later Facebook came out with its Internet.Org, renamed as Free Basics.

This is the first ever regulation from Trai which saw record participation of 24 lakh people during the consultation round. Facebook claimed that the number of comments in support of Free Basics to be more than 1.35 crore as against Trai's official figure of around 24 lakh.

IT industry through Nasscom, IAMAI and other bodies have appreciated Trai's decision.

Talking about difference of prices on the basis of Internet speed like 2G, 3G and 4G, Sharma said Trai is discussing the same under the draft direction to service providers for delivering broadband services in a transparent manner. 

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